Is Poverty Not "Sexy" Enough?

The title of this piece may seem irreverent or even crude. When I first heard it, I thought so. I still do. But I've been working in children's policy for more than 20 years, including in the U.S. Senate, and the number of high level policy experts and communications specialists who have rebuffed me -- point blank -- that poverty is simply not "sexy" enough to "sell" to the American public is astounding.

They do have a point in one sense. Poverty itself is not "sexy". It is devastating, cyclical, paralyzing, and utterly demoralizing. I, as a middle class American, can never know what it is really like to grow up in a family or community engulfed in inter-generational poverty. We cannot preach Horatio Alger to people who are stuck in poverty's deadly cycle.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released a new report on children's poverty. According to the report, one in five children now lives in poverty, up from 17% in 2000. This is an increase of 2.4 million children living in poverty. These are not just statistics. They are real children, waking up hungry, living under extreme stress, going to school tired and unable to concentrate, living in communities people would rather not see. This is children suffering. With no end.

The closest thing we have to truly addressing the all-encompassing vortex of poverty is the Harlem Children's Zone, a geographically based system of comprehensive supports and program for children and families from pre-natal through college. Nothing else even comes close. Have you seen the game "Whack a Mole"? Every time you hit a mole, another pops up? The Harlem Children's Zone takes away the ever-popping moles. Because that is the only way to really change the trajectory of low-income children's lives. It can't be done piecemeal, whack a mole here, whack a mole there. The Obama administration has attempted to replicate this with its Promise Neighborhoods initiative, a good start. But not enough communities have enough funding.

The administration also recently released its final guidelines on its Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. This is a good program, and will provide funding to states to improve programs for low-income children ages 0-5. In 2009, the Obama administration had proposed $8 billion for this initiative. Long-term research shows that for every dollar spent, these investments save between $7 and $17 over time in remedial education, child welfare and criminal justice system costs. But the funding is now down to $500 million and expected to be awarded to perhaps 5-8 states. Secretary Duncan said that the funding is going to high-performing states. But what about the children in the low-performing states? Meanwhile, programs like Head Start and child care, for the neediest of American children, face the annual appropriations chopping block, again.

How can this be? Why are policymakers not pounding their podiums about what is happening to poor children in this country? Is it really because the issue is not "sexy" enough? Why are we all so afraid to say the word -- poverty? Does "working class families" play better? Maybe it is less threatening. Maybe it gets more votes. But one in five children in this country lives in a family that is below the poverty level. What will happen to these children? Cutting funding for programs to help them will be a blip on the deficit radar screen. Yet it is actually under consideration on Capitol Hill.

The unbearable, relentless realities of poverty should be broadcasted loudly and stridently by every policymaker, media figure, and news organization with a public platform in this country, every single day, until something significant, something meaningful changes. You are only a child once. In today's world, one in five children is poor, one in four is hungry, and 8 million remain uninsured. We must fight for Medicaid, early childhood care, education, nutrition. Without these necessities, children will not become who they were born to be. Some will even die.

That is not rhetoric. And it is happening in the United States.

We should demand that our politicians conduct "poverty tours" like Bobby Kennedy, who said in 1968, "I have seen children in Mississippi -- here in the United States -- with a gross national product of $800 billion dollars -- I have seen children in the Delta area of Mississippi with distended stomachs, whose faces are covered with sores from starvation, and we haven't developed a policy so we can get enough food so that they can live, so that their children, so that their lives are not destroyed, I don't think that's acceptable in the United States of America and I think we need a change."

Geoffrey Canada, President of the Harlem Children's Zone, saw what was needed in Harlem and did something about it. Suddenly, as we have been in recession, jobs and the economy are top priorities. But for far too many poor children, there has never been another reality.

Can it be that poverty is simply not "sexy" enough to capture the attention of the American public? Go visit an impoverished community and see what you think. See if you think the children and families there can withstand a cut in food stamps or health care or child care or preschool funding or teachers. See if you think a piecemeal program here or there will truly change the lives of children. Is the issue not "sexy" enough for you?

We're better than that.

Tell your member of Congress. We are better than that. Funding for children must not be cut. Children must be held harmless. Those who can afford it most should contribute to deficit reduction, not those who can afford it least, and certainly not children whose very future hangs in the balance.

Poverty is most definitely not "sexy". It is devastating. We must stop avoiding it. We must act upon it. Now.